Co-authored with James Howard Hill, Jr., a seminarian at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Contact at @j_hilljr.
Convenience stores hold an ominous place within the annals of African-American history.
On August 24, 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan visiting his grandparents in the Mississippi Delta, allegedly whistled at a white woman while patronizing Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market. Different sources provide conflicting accounts as to why Emmett whistled. Some contend that his whistle derived from a debilitating stutter. Others contest that Emmett's whistle was deliberate and was coupled with physical groping and verbal vulgarities. History may never know exactly what took place because Emmett is not here to speak for himself.
On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Floridian made a short odyssey to purchase Skittles and iced tea at a Sanford convenience store. While returning home at night, Trayvon discovered that he was being followed. Deeply alarmed, Trayvon called a friend and informed her of what was transpiring. Little is known beyond that fateful phone call. History may never know what exactly took place because Trayvon is not here to speak for himself.
On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, college-bound freshman, allegedly entered a Ferguson, Missouri convenience store, assaulted the attending clerk and stole a box of cigars. Like Emmett and Trayvon before him, the surrounding details are disputed. Yet, the final outcome is the same. Moments later, Michael lay dead in a pool of his own blood in the middle of the street. Once again, history may never know what exactly took place because Michael is not here to speak for himself.
While these unarmed teenagers are unable to tell their own stories, the media has conveniently stepped in to offer its own narrative. It is a narrative that we have heard so often and for so many years that we know it by heart. [Insert the name of the deceased here] must be gang-associated, a drug dealer, capable of great violence, and a notable threat to society.
His or her death must be warranted.
For this convenient narrative, the physical attributes of the victims are used to justify the violence that befalls them. Emmett was a stocky, mature-looking young man. Surely, he was capable of sexually harassing this white woman, possibly even threatening her with rape. Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie over his head, and he had gold teeth in his mouth. Surely, these are the indisputable markings of a common thug. Michael was a towering and powerful-looking, young man. Surely, he was a threat to the public's safety.
In the end, this convenient narrative holds that these uncontrollable youths got what they deserved.
In criminalizing the victim, the brutality of the perpetrator is diminished. In the case of Emmett Till, the fact that a child was beaten, castrated, shot in the head and thrown in the river gained no traction in a Southern court. In the case of Trayvon Martin, the fact that his armed assailant, who possessed a violent criminal record, had initiated the pursuit was overshadowed by the marijuana later discovered in Trayvon's system.
In the wake of Michael Brown's death, the #ifiwasgunneddown Twitter trend highlighted the historical inconsistencies of the media's portrayal of unarmed African American youth who are the victims of violent crime. We shall now see how the narrative will unfold for Michael. What we have seen thus far is that images of his unarmed, lifeless body have been replaced with images of an alleged assault and theft of a convenience store. For some, the alleged incident already justifies the final outcome.
Convenience stores are designed to offer rapid entry and departure with selected goods. With convenient narratives such as these, the media is able to lift from the shelves of our nation's racialized history such labels as thug, sexual deviant, drug dealer, addict and criminal with possible gang ties, then depart quickly to run with the story.
This week in Ferguson, protesters burned down a convenience store. While such violence should not be condoned, the time has come to set this convenient narrative ablaze!